The news is out and on repeat, as usual, only this time: it’s personal, the kind that makes you cry in relief and do a dancey-dance at the same time. How often do we feel that what we read is relevant and personal to our lives, our nows? We turn to various journalistic sources for satire, for political affiliation and infuriation, for doses of depression, for a little reality, for a lot of unreality and, sometimes, for good news. Last night I received good news, news that I think is not only good for me but good for you, too, and good for the globe:
Exodus International (EI), a nondenominational Christianity-based “ex-gay” ministry out of Anaheim, dedicated to the suppression and redirection of homosexual desire as well as “rehabilitation” of former homosexuals, has announced that it will close.
More than this, the ministry made a public apology for the irreparable damages it has caused. Founded in 1976, Exodus spread its message and provided its services with over 260 ministries across North America. By 2004, an Exodus Global Alliance had spread into an additional 17 countries.
Why care about Exodus’ change of heart? Because it’s a sign of progress after a thirty-seven-year period of pain – something I know about, personally, because I experienced the effects of Exodus first-hand, nearly ending up as one of the “reformed.”
In 2001, I, a sixteen-year-old, came out as a lesbian for the first time to my parents, family, friends, and the entire – predominantly white, heteronormative – suburban community of East Amherst, New York (or at least my entire high school).
East Amherst is considered one of the safest cities in New York State but that did not protect me against the long-held phobias, stigmas, and prejudices within my own home. My mother, whom I love dearly and with whom I have evolved and healed, fell victim to the ignorant and intolerant messages of fundamentalist Christian organizations, like Exodus, that treat homoerotic love as an illness and an evil.
While Exodus International painted itself as a location of (God’s) love, the reality was one of extreme loathing and fanatical fear. While the ideas promoted in EI’s pamphlets were, on the surface, intended to guide sinners out of the path of sin and the images they displayed were ones of peace, they did not do the organization justice. I feel the need to provide that justice now that I have an opportunity.
Even now, many years later, when I think of the pamphlets I found in my parents’ (then my) basement, I feel a tremendous grief for all of humanity. Behind those “well-adjusted” homo-transcended smiles were tormented souls: people who fought day-to-day to deny their inclinations and desires in order to belong – to fit in with what their community tells them is the opinion of God, to avoid suffering what seem like insurmountable negative consequences.
As soon as I spied the pamphlets and my mother’s plan to commit me to EI’s ministry, I knew, with one of the worst gut feelings I had ever experienced, that the work Exodus was doing was misguided and harmful to humanity.
Realizing that I am a lesbian was one of the happiest moments of my life, and I did it while praying to (who else?)God. On the other hand, hearing my mother wailing violently and listening to her verbally attack my character and self-worth for two years in the name of Jesus was dehumanizing. In fact, while her “efforts” were all geared toward my salvation, I was living in Hell. So I knew there was no rationale, in the Bible or anywhere else, that could justify making someone’s life hell in order to save her from it.
Exodus International certainly cannot be blamed for the suffering I experienced at the mouth of my mother, but the seed from which Exodus grew is another story. That seed, that mentality, wherein (from fear) hate abounds, creates the cruelest and least-rational solution to the problem of fear: it attempts to destroy the object of fear by rendering it deserving of archaic and harsh punishments, such as emotional isolation, psychological abuse, defamation, degradation, denouncement and excommunication.
I know all of this because I experienced it with my mother, who was scared for her life and mine that I was going to be damned to Hell and that I would bring shame to her public life. She felt implicated by my sexuality, which only made her fight harder to crush and deny it. Humanity feels implicated by homoerotic desire in a similar way, but that is slowly changing.
Closets are real. They are real and they hurt people. Coming out can hurt, too. Imagine trying to go back in. Exodus International is an organization that tries to put people back in the closet. Or, it used to be.
It is with a big sigh of relief that I share with all of you, with my mother and with my hometown and with teenagers and with adults who have been affected everywhere, that the “gay cure” offered by Exodus International is now off the market.
Many have responded to this with anger and admonishments toward Exodus and EI’s president, Alan Chambers, but I am not going to do that and I hope you will not, either. Exodus, like my mother, needs forgiveness and compassion. Progress is all about forgiving and moving forward.
Of course we should not forget the damage caused by the ignorance of Exodus. As a matter of fact, we cannot. The place from which Exodus came wounds many of us still. But consider with empathy the suffering place from which Exodus formed. Its foundation was built on extreme, pervasive homophobia: an internal terror felt, even today, by countless people all over the world.
There are people all around you, your neighbors and nearby strangers, who hurt and hide in fear that you, their could-be allies, will judge and persecute them for expressing who they are inside. If you want to help to ease the suffering of those affected by Exodus, don’t simply denounce the organization or celebrate its downfall: do something brave on behalf of your fellow citizens.
Make public your support of their human rights. Put Safe Space stickers on your windows and doors. Open your mouths, open your doors, open your arms. Speak up and stand up. If you know someone who has suffered because of EI, reach out.
We all belong here and we need each other – now more than ever – to cross those boundaries of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, class, religion and any other difference in order to create a better world for ourselves and for future generations.
Exodus International has hurt humanity but now it is working to do better. There is more work to be done. Let’s support, not only Exodus but also, one another as we now begin to heal and give to others what we’ve wanted all along: peace, acceptance, outreach, kindness, honesty, and empathy. Let’s hear about ministers and leaders who promote tolerance and compassion. And let’s finally transcend our differences and do something positive, together.
For support and additional resources, visit GLAAD, an organization dedicated to LGBT equality.
(photo by Wing-Chi Poon via Wikimedia Commons)